The theory of transformative learning that has been developed by Jack Mezirow during the past two decades has evolved "into a comprehensive and complex description of how learners construe, validate, and reformulate the meaning of their experience" (Cranton 1994, p. 22). Centrality of experience, critical reflection, and rational discourse are three common themes in Mezirow's theory (Taylor 1998), which is based on psychoanalytic theory (Boyd and Myers 1988) and critical social theory (Scott 1997).
For learners to change their "meaning schemes (specific beliefs, attitudes, and emotional reactions)," they must engage in critical reflection on their experiences, which in turn leads to a perspective transformation (Mezirow 1991, p. 167). "Perspective transformation is the process of becoming critically aware of how and why our assumptions have come to constrain the way we perceive, understand, and feel about our world; changing these structures of habitual expectation to make possible a more inclusive, discriminating, and integrating perspective; and, finally, making choices or otherwise acting upon these new understandings" (ibid.).
Perspective transformation explains how the meaning structures that adults have acquired over a lifetime become transformed. These meaning structures are frames of reference that are based on the totality of individuals' cultural and contextual experiences and that influence how they behave and interpret events (Taylor 1998). An individual's meaning structure will influence how she chooses to vote or how she reacts to women who suffer physical abuse, for example.
The meaning schemes that make up meaning structures may change as an individual adds to or integrates ideas within an existing scheme and, in fact, this transformation of meaning schemes occurs routinely through learning. Perspective transformation leading to transformative learning, however, occurs much less frequently. Mezirow believes that it usually results from a "disorienting dilemma," which is triggered by a life crisis or major life transition, although it may also result from an accumulation of transformations in meaning schemes over a period of time (Mezirow 1995, p. 50).
Meaning schemes are based upon experiences that can be deconstructed and acted upon in a rational way (Taylor 1998). Mezirow (1995) suggests this happens through a series of phases that begin with the disorienting dilemma. Other phases include self-examination, critical assessment of assumptions, recognition that others have shared similar transformations, exploration of new roles or actions, development of a plan for action, acquisition of knowledge and skills for implementing the plan, tryout of the plan, development of competence and self-confidence in new roles, and reintegration into life on the basis of new perspectives (ibid., adapted from p. 50).
As described by Mezirow (1997), transformative learning occurs when individuals change their frames of reference by critically reflecting on their assumptions and beliefs and consciously making and implementing plans that bring about new ways of defining their worlds. His theory describes a learning process that is primarily "rational, analytical, and cognitive" with an "inherent logic" (Grabov 1997, pp. 90-91).
A number of critical responses to Mezirow's theory of transformative learning have emerged over the years. (See Cranton  and Taylor  for a full discussion of these critiques.) One major area of contention surrounding Mezirow's theory is its emphasis upon rationality (ibid.). Although many empirical studies support Mezirow's contention that critical reflection is central to transformative learning, others have "concluded that critical reflection is granted too much importance in a perspective transformation, a process too rationally driven" (Taylor 1998, pp. 33-34). A view of transformative learning as an "intuitive, creative, emotional process" is beginning to emerge in the literature (Grabov 1997, p. 90). This view of transformative learning is based primarily on the work of Robert Boyd (Boyd and Myers 1988), who has developed a theory of transformative education based on analytical (or depth) psychology.
For Boyd, transformation is a "fundamental change in one's personality involving [together] the resolution of a personal dilemma and the expansion of consciousness resulting in greater personality integration" (Boyd 1989, p. 459, cited in Taylor 1998, p. 13). The process of discernment is central to transformative education (Boyd and Myers 1988). Discernment calls upon such extrarational sources as symbols, images, and archetypes to assist in creating a personal vision or meaning of what it means to be human (ibid.; Cranton 1994).
The process of discernment is composed of the three activities of receptivity, recognition, and grieving. First, an individual must be receptive or open to receiving "alternative expressions of meaning," and then recognize that the message is authentic (Boyd and Myers 1988, p. 277). Grieving, considered by Boyd (ibid.) to be the most critical phase of the discernment process, takes place when an individual realizes that old patterns or ways of perceiving are no longer relevant, moves to adopt or establish new ways, and finally, integrates old and new patterns.
Transformative education draws on the "realm of interior experience, one constituent being the rational expressed through insights, judgments, and decision; the other being the extrarational expressed through symbols, images, and feelings" (ibid., p. 275). The process of discernment allows the exploration of both, moving back and forth between the rational and the extrarational. Unlike Mezirow, who sees the ego as playing a central role in the process of perspective transformation, Boyd and Myers use a framework that moves beyond the ego and the emphasis on reason and logic to a definition of transformative learning that is more psychosocial in nature (Taylor 1998).
Perhaps one of the best definitions of transformative learning was put forward by O'Sullivan (2003):
"Transformative learning involves experiencing a deep, structural shift in the basic premises of thought, feelings, and actions. It is a shift of consciousness that dramatically and irreversibly alters our way of being in the world. Such a shift involves our understanding of ourselves and our self-locations; our relationships with other humans and with the natural world; our understanding of relations of power in interlocking structures of class, race and gender; our body awarenesses, our visions of alternative approaches to living; and our sense of possibilities for social justice and peace and personal joy."
An elusive concept
Transformative learning is an elusive concept. One of the difficulties in defining transformative learning is that it bleeds into the boundaries of concepts such as "meaning making" or "critical thinking". These demarcations are becoming increasingly blurred. Of course, all these terms are constructs, are part of a continuum, and are interrelated. For example, while critical thinking is an often necessary but definitely not sufficient condition for transformative learning, it is nevertheless conceivable that some instances of critical thinking could constitute transformative learning.
Some existing definitions might help. Burbules and Berk (1999) write about critical thinking:
"The Critical Thinking tradition concerns itself primarily with criteria of epistemic adequacy: to be "critical" basically means to be more discerning in recognizing faulty arguments, hasty generalizations, assertions lacking evidence, truth claims based on unreliable authority, ambiguous or obscure concepts, and so forth. ... Where our beliefs remain unexamined, we are not free; we act without thinking about why we act, and thus do not exercise control over our own destinies. For the Critical Thinking tradition ... critical thinking aims at self-sufficiency, and "a self-sufficient person is a liberated person...free from the unwarranted and undesirable control of unjustified beliefs" (Siegel, 1988, 58).
The term "meaning making" (i.e., constructing meaning) is found most frequently in constructivist approaches to education, based on the work of educators such as John Dewey, Maria Montessori, Jean Piaget, Jerome Bruner, and Lev Vygotsky.
"Constructivist epistemology assumes that learners construct their own knowledge on the basis of interaction with their environment. Four epistemological assumptions are at the heart of what we refer to as "constructivist learning.": 1. Knowledge is physically constructed by learners who are involved in active learning. 2. Knowledge is symbolically constructed by learners who are making their own representations of action. 3. Knowledge is socially constructed by learners who convey their meaning making to others. 4. Knowledge is theoretically constructed by learners who try to explain things they don't completely understand." (Gagnon, Jr. & Collay, 1999)
Meaning, then, is constructed from knowledge. According to one author, it "addresses the ultimate concerns about the purpose of life ... provides opportunities for significant learning and development in adulthood ... is the center of human experiences and the most fundamental human activity" (Lee, 1999).
Mezirow (1990) points out that all learning is change but not all change is transformation. There is a difference between transmissional, transactional and transformational education (Miller & Seller, 1990). In the first, facts and knowledge are transmitted from teacher to student. In transactional education, it is recognized that the student is not a "blank slate", has (valuable) experiences, and learns best through modes such as experience, inquiry, critical thinking and interaction with other learners. It could be argued that some of the research regarding transformative learning has been in the realm of transactional education, and that what is seen as transformative by some authors (e.g. Cragg et al., 2001) is in fact still within the realm of transactional learning.
Transformative learning in practice
On the surface, the two views of transformative learning presented here are contradictory. One advocates a rational approach that depends primarily on critical reflection whereas the other relies more on intuition and emotion. The differences in the two views, however, may best be seen as a matter of emphasis. Both use rational processes and incorporate imagination as a part of a creative process. Mezirow's view emphasizes the rational whereas Boyd and Myers' relies most heavily on imagination or the extrarational. Grabov (1997) suggests that the two views share a number of commonalities including "humanism, emancipation, autonomy, critical reflection, equity, self-knowledge, participation, communication and discourse" (p. 90). The two different views of transformative learning described here as well as examples of how it occurs in practice (see, for example, Cranton 1997 and Taylor 1998) suggest that no single mode of transformative learning exists. Differences in learning contexts, learners, and teachers all affect the experiences of transformative learning. Because people learn in different but interwoven ways, educators should not see transformative learning as the only goal of education (Cranton 1994). Based on findings from empirical studies, Taylor (1998) suggests that not all learners are predisposed to engage in transformative learning. The same can be said for teachers. Not all teachers of adults may feel comfortable with a goal of transformative learning. In addition, many adult learning situations do not necessarily lend themselves to transformative learning.
When transformative learning is the goal of adult education, however, how can it best be fostered given the variables of learning contexts, learners, and teachers? Whether transformative learning is approached as a consciously rational process or through a more intuitive, imaginative process, fostering a learning environment in which it can occur should consider the following:
-- The role of the teacher. The teacher's role in establishing an environment that builds trust and care and facilitates the development of sensitive relationships among learners is a fundamental principle of fostering transformative learning (Taylor 1998). Loughlin (1993) talks about the responsibility of the teacher to create a "community of knowers," individuals who are "united in a shared experience of trying to make meaning of their life experience" (pp. 320-321). As a member of that community, the teacher also sets the stage for transformative learning by serving as a role model and demonstrating a willingness to learn and change by expanding and deepening understanding of and perspectives about both subject matter and teaching (Cranton 1994).
-- The role of the learner. Taylor (1998) believes that too much emphasis has been placed on the role of the teacher at the expense of the role of the participant. Although it is difficult for transformative learning to occur without the teacher playing a key role, participants also have a responsibility for creating the learning environment. As a part of a community of knowers, learners share the responsibility for constructing and creating the conditions under which transformative learning can occur.
-- The role of the rational and the affective. Transformative learning has two layers that at times seem to be in conflict: the cognitive, rational, and objective and the intuitive, imaginative, and subjective (Grabov 1997). Both the rational and the affective play a role in transformative learning. Although the emphasis has been on transformative learning as a rational process, teachers need to consider how they can help students connect the rational and the affective by using feelings and emotions both in critical reflection and as a means of reflection (Taylor 1998).
Transformative learning may not always be a goal of adult education, but its importance should not be overlooked and all adult educators should strive to understand it, even if they do not choose to foster it.
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O'Sullivan, E. (2003) Bringing a perspective of transformative learning to globalized consumption. International Journal of Consumer Studies, 27 (4), 326–330
Scott, Sue M. "The Grieving Soul in the Transformation Process." In TRANSFORMATIVE LEARNING IN ACTION: INSIGHTS FROM PRACTICE. NEW DIRECTIONS FOR ADULT AND CONTINUING EDUCATION NO. 74, edited by P. Cranton, pp. 41-50. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, Summer 1997.
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- Transformative Learning in Adulthood. ERIC Digest. The original version of this Wikipedia article is from the public domain text at this site.